I've always wanted to say "We're gonna have to pull an all-nighter!" in the manner of a 70s journalist breaking Watergate whilst eating Chinese food from cartons. Staying up until 3am to finish Our Mutual Friend, the second-to-last novel in our Dickens marathon, almost felt as good.
This is a long, murky devil of a book, but I'm glad I persevered. Our Mutual Friend is dark, fantastical, mysterious, uneven, often frustrating, but I loved it. This story of a fortune made from 'dust heaps' (according to the notes, mountains of waste!) has the weird humour that the Big Monsters Bleak House and Little Dorrit sometimes lacked, but with all their grimy atmosphere and obsession with money. It has fantastic melodrama, murders, doubles, disguises, sexual obsession, disappearances, blackmail and con artists. It has a psychologically fascinating villain in repressed schoolteacher Bradley Headstone, possessed by lust, grinding his fists against walls until they bleed. And it has the dark, swirling Thames, which runs through the story and sucks everyone into its power.
Best of all are the women. Yes, the familiar creepy father/daughter relationships are still here, yet I felt something had shifted. The women are interesting and (mostly) non-saintly. They are stronger than their fathers; they make their own livings, they change and develop, and the central heroines Bella and Lizzie both, in different ways, save the men they marry. Jenny Wren, a crippled doll's dressmaker of childlike appearance, is a strange presence, but also has a sharp brain, seeing through the 'tricks and manners' of the men around her.
I don’t think the upper-class characters in the novel work so well, but perhaps that's because it's the weak, the humble and the odd that really interest Dickens. Please, please don't be put off by the gargantuan size of Our Mutual Friend, and give this strange and brilliant book a try.
Next time, we shall be wearing black armbands for our very last Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood...
Louise Willder, Copywriter